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Pay close attention. This is how it happens…
President Obama found a moment of reduced visibility, in an unwatched hour on New Year’s Eve, to sign the latest assault on the Fifth Amendment. In signing the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 on New Year’s Eve, Obama knew the nation’s attention would be diverted by revelry, football, New Year’s Day and a Monday national holiday.
In case you haven’t heard, the National Defense Authorization Act allows the government to detain people indefinitely — yes, it includes American citizens who can be taken even on our native soil and imprisoned — merely on the basis of accusations.
The measure is “so radical,” says Human Rights Watch, “that it would have been considered crazy had it been pushed by the Bush administration.” And although Obama appended a signing statement as he put his name to the act, solemnly assuring the nation that the power he insisted on having won’t be used recklessly, it is a political gesture that has no more force of a law than attaching a little yellow sticky note to the bill. If the clear language of the Constitution itself cannot bind the governing classes, it is hard to imagine a post-it note having much effect on the current or future presidents now that the indefinite detention of Americans without trial has been legislatively countenanced.
There you have it in a nutshell, the new American way: Guilty until proven innocent. This is how once-free people slip into state tyranny and slide into martial law.
Political figures are always careful to paper over their power grabs with spurious legalities and midnight measures, granting themselves the rights they are appropriating. No matter how flimsy the pretext, no matter how forbidden the act, everything must be formalized and enabled. Overturned rights and the pretext of legality.
That is how the Fourth Amendment was trashed … marginalized by a document called the Patriot Act. And now the Fifth Amendment is under attack.
But you shouldn’t be surprised. If the president of the United States can have you, an American citizen, assassinated on his own say so, how much of a shock is it to find that he can have you arrested and held without any of that pesky Fifth Amendment due process business?
Of course, in trying to outdo Bush, Obama has all along claimed the right to detain Americans without interference from the Bill of Rights. In making this extraordinary claim, Obama relied on the 10-year-old Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the measure authorizing the pursuit of those responsible for 9/11. But now this broad interpretation of the authority to go after the likes of Osama bin Laden has been extended to nullify whole sections of the Bill of Rights. Obama’s reading of his authority, radical to begin with, has now been handed to him in a statute, codified in a pile of paperwork called the National Defense Authorization Act, and tucked right in with the Pentagon’s budget. It’s all part of the forever war on terror, after all.
And if the assault on the Fifth Amendment weren’t enough, the Sixth Amendment was put on the table as well. Remember, that’s the one about “a speedy and public trial” and “an impartial jury.” Well, that’s all but flushed. Forget “speedy.” And “public” just left town. You can now be detained without a trial at all. Indefinitely.
How many points on the line does it take to recognize our downward slope into state lawlessness? Do we really need more than just the state claiming the right to arrest and hold the people without due process? Does it take more than the state assuming the right to assassinate them?
Warrantless surveillance? Torture? The state secrets privilege? Critics of the National Defense Authorization Act say it makes it easier for the government to render citizens to fascist proxy states where they can be tortured. Is that enough points on the line to see where we are headed?
Can the slide into state militarism be seen in serial wars, all undeclared? In the trillions of war spending that won’t be refused? Or in drones prowling overhead in what used to be called “our country,” but has now been renamed with a term that echoes Nazi Germany: The Homeland?
Perhaps it is a slope that can be discerned in the threat of violence as the first tool of diplomacy. In the paramilitary forces and SWAT teams that are now part of virtually every federal department and agency. In the Freudian envy with which local police departments across the land ape the dress and manner of military operations. In the TSA Viper (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams that have now moved their surveillance of the American people beyond the airports and put them on the open streets of das Heimland.
It happens in every power grab in modern times. Like the National Defense Authorization Act, there is always a legalistic pretext upon which the power grab of the state relies. Lenin consolidated his control under the cover of a blizzard of legalistic decree-laws. Hitler promulgated his emergency decree “For the Protection of the People and the State” on the day of the Reichstag fire. That was followed by the “Enabling Act,” which declared that laws of the Reich could deviate from the constitution.
Paper pretexts all, slow-motion coups in the small hours conferring the appearance of legitimacy as they subvert the people’s freedom.
Of course, most of the national news media, the lapdog press, will miss the latest assaults on the Bill of Rights. But do not assume it’s because they were all hung-over. It’s easier to believe that they just don’t care. If there is any dissent at all about this power grab, it will not be because of the attack on your freedom. The national talk shows will see it as important only to the extent that it allows their favored team, red or blue, to move the ball down the field.
But where are America’s sworn defenders of the Constitution? With arms raised, all federal officeholders mouth the words, “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”
Where are the Democrats who made that vow, those who were worked into a frenzy by the Patriot Act and Bush’s abuses of the Constitution, including warrantless eavesdropping? Where are they now that Obama’s abuses are out-Bushing Bush?
They are in the same silent space occupied by the Republicans who denounced Clinton’s unconstitutional and undeclared warfare until Bush went to war without a declaration. It is a silent space large enough to accommodate all the Republican and Democrats alike who make empty vows of empty words.
Believing not one thing or the other, they make fitting companions for the cowards Dante described as hateful to both God and his enemies: “The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened, have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them – even the wicked cannot glory in them.”
So pay close attention. This is how it happens.